The emperor's castle was so nice that you had to take great care how you touched it. In the garden were the most beautiful flowers. They were admirably arranged. Beyond the garden was a forest with great trees and deep lakes in it. The forest sloped down to the sea, which was a clear blue. Large ships could sail under the boughs of the trees.
In these trees there lived a nightingale. She sang so beautifully "She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes" that even the poor fisherman who had so much to do stood and listened when he came at night to cast his nets. "How beautiful it is!" he said; but he had to attend to his work, and forgot about the bird. But when she sang the next night and the fisherman came there again, he said the same thing, "How beautiful!"
From all the countries round came travellers to the emperor's town, who were astonished at the castle and the garden. But when they heard the nightingale they all said, "This is the finest thing after all!" The travellers told all about it when they went home, and learned scholars wrote many books on the town, the castle, and the garden. But they did not forget the nightingale; she was praised the most.
The books were circulated throughout the world, and some of them reached the emperor. He sat in his golden chair and tried to read a little. He nodded his head in approval, for he liked reading the accounts of the town, the castle, and the garden. "But the nightingale is better than all," he saw written.
"What is that?" said the emperor. "I don't know anything about the nightingale! Is there such a bird in my empire, and so near my garden?"
And he called his minister to him and said to him, "Here is a most remarkable nightingale!" said the emperor. "They say it is the most glorious thing in my kingdom."
"I have never before heard it mentioned!" said the minister. "I will look for it and find it! But where?"
"The book I read this in," said the emperor, "is sent me from the Far East; so let me hear the nightingale this evening! She has my gracious permission to appear after supper!"
The minister started to run up and down stairs, through the halls and corridors, and half the court ran with him. Everyone was asking after the wonderful bird that all the world knew of except those at court.
At last they met a little girl in the kitchen, who said, "Oh! I know the nightingale well. How she sings! When I am going home at night I often rest for a little in the wood, and then I hear the nightingale sing."
"Little kitchen maid!" said the minister, "I will give you a place in the kitchen if you can lead us to the nightingale. She is invited to come to court this evening."
And so they all went into the wood where the nightingale was wont to sing, and heard a cow mooing.
"Oh!" said the courtiers, "now we have found her!"
"No; that is a cow mooing I "said the kitchen maid.
Then the frogs began to croak in the marsh. "Splendid!" said the chaplain. "It is not wholly unlike a little church-bell!"
"No, no; those are frogs!" said the kitchen maid.
Then the nightingale began to sing.
"There she is!" cried the little girl. And she pointed to a little dark-grey bird up in the branches.
"I should never have thought it!" said the minister.
"Little nightingale," called out the kitchen maid, "Our emperor wants you to sing before him!"
"With great pleasure!" said the nightingale and sang a little.
"She will be a great success at court." said the minister.
"Shall I sing once more for the emperor?" asked the nightingale, thinking that the emperor was there.
"He is not among us here. But come to the castle tonight and sing, and I am sure he will be enchanted with your lovely song!" said the minister.
"It sounds best in the green wood," said the nightingale; but still she came gladly and was offered a golden perch to sit on. The whole court was there, and the kitchen maid was allowed to stand behind the door, now that she was a court-cook. Now the emperor nodded to the little grey bird, and she started singing so lovely that tears came into the emperor's eyes and ran down his cheeks. Then the nightingale sang even more beautifully. The emperor was so delighted by now that he said nothing at all. Then she sang again with her gloriously sweet voice. The nightingale was a real success.
She had to stay at court now; and was given twelve servants, who each held a silken string which was fastened round her leg. The whole town was talking about the wonderful bird.
Then one day the emperor received a large parcel on which was written "The nightingale." "Here is another new book about our famous bird!" said the emperor. But it was not a book, but a little mechanical toy in a box an artificial nightingale that was set all over with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. When it was wound up, it could sing "She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes" too, and move its tail up and down, glittering with silver and gold.
"This is magnificent!" they all said, "Now they must sing together; what a duet we shall have!"
And so they sang together, but their voices did not blend.
In the end the artificial bird had to sing alone. When the singing was over, they all wanted the living nightingale to sing too, but where was she? No one had noticed that she had flown out of the open window away to her green woods.
"What shall we do!" said the emperor.
"But we have still the best bird!" they said and the artificial bird had to sing again, and that was the thirty-fourth time they had heard the same piece. But they did not yet know it by heart, and the bandmaster praised it: "You see, with the real nightingale one can never tell what will come out, and just how!"
"That's just what we think!" said everyone. But the fishermen who had heard the real nightingale said: "This one sings well enough, the tunes glide out; but there is something wanting, but I don't know what!"
Later the real nightingale was banished from the castle, while the artificial bird was put on silken cushions. The bandmaster wrote a work of twenty-five volumes about the artificial bird. It was so learned, long, and little understood . . . But the emperor, the court, and all the people in time knew every note of the artificial bird's song by heart. They could sing along with it, and they did. It gave them great pleasure.
But one evening, when the artificial bird was singing its best, and the emperor lay in bed listening to it, something in the bird went crack. The works inside it were nearly worn out it. It was found that from now on it must be very seldom used, only once a year, and even that was almost too much.
Five years passed, and then the emperor got ill. Cold and pale lay the emperor in his splendid great bed. The whole court believed him dead, and one after the other left him to pay their respects to the new emperor that had been chosen in his stead.
The old emperor longed for relief where he lay. The moon was streaming in at the open window; but the night was silent.
"Music! Let there be music!" cried the emperor. But the mechanical bird was silent. There was no one to wind it up.
All at once there came in at the window a wonderful burst of song. It was the little living nightingale, who, sitting outside on a bough, had heard the need of the emperor and had come to sing to him a little. As she sang the blood flowed quicker and quicker in the old, sulking emperor's weak limbs, and life began to return.
"Thank you!" said the emperor. "I chased you from the castle, and you have given me life again! Can I reward you?"
"You shed tears of delight the first time I sang, and thereby gladdened this singer's heart. Get strong again. I will sing you a lullaby."
The emperor fell into a deep, calm sleep. The sun was shining through the window when he awoke. He felt strong and well. None of his servants had come back yet, for they thought he was dead. But the nightingale sat and sang to him.
"You shall sing whenever you like, and I will break the artificial bird into a thousand pieces," said the old emperor.
"Don't do that!" said the nightingale. "He worked well as long as he could. Keep him. I cannot build my nest in the castle and live here; but let me come whenever I like. I will sit in the evening on the bough outside the window, and I will sing you something that will make you happy and grateful, which otherwise lies hidden from you. I love your heart more than your crown. Promise me just one thing . . . "
"I think I can do that!" said the emperor.
"Don't tell anyone that you have a little bird who tells you things. It will be much better not to!" Then the nightingale flew away.
Now the servants came in to look at their dead emperor. He said, "Good-morning!"
❋ If you are terribly fond of music, consider learning to play an instrument, or sing yourself.
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